The political row over legal action against British soldiers who served overseas has intensified after the Ministry of Defence confirmed that more than 120 royal military police (RMP) personnel are investigating alleged abuses in .
The scale of the inquiry into claims that British troops mistreated Afghan detainees between 2005 and 2013 has expanded to include more than 600 allegations made by 150 individuals.
British forces illegally detained Afghan suspect, court of appeal rules
The investigation, known as Operation Northmoor, based in Newquay, Cornwall, employs 124 RMP soldiers, according to the MoD. One of the cases is understood to involve Serdar Mohammed, who was captured by UK soldiers in April 2010, but not handed over to the Afghan security services until July that year, despite regulations requiring any transfer to take place within 96 hours.
Mohammed was eventually released to return to his home in Helmand province. He claimed that the Afghan authorities tortured him.
Commenting on the investigation, an MoD spokesperson said: “Our armed forces are rightly held to the highest standards and, whilst rare, where there are credible claims of criminal behaviour, we should investigate them. An independent investigation is the best way to make sure that innocent personnel are not dragged through the courts without cause – none of the Op Northmoor allegations investigated have so far been referred to the Service Prosecution Authority.”
When Mohammed won his claim for mistreatment at the court of appeal last year, the judges – the lord chief justice, Lord Thomas, Lord Justice Lloyd Jones and Lord Justice Beatson – also expressed misgivings about UK forces overseas being subject to the European convention on human rights (ECHR) rather than the Geneva conventions on warfare.
In their judgment, they referred to “significant reservations in respect of the correctness of the decision extending the ECHR to the battlefield”.
On Thursday Theresa May discussed the issue of legal claims against soldiers during a meeting with defence chiefs which also covered armed forces recruitment and the fight against Islamic State. A spokeswoman for the prime minister said she stressed that abuse of the legal system must be prevented and troops protected from vexatious claims.
Continued investigations and legal actions against British troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to increasingly acrimonious relations between the government and human rights lawyers.
Two law firms, Leigh Day and Public Interest Lawyers in Birmingham, are facing disciplinary action after the government lodged complaints with the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) over Iraq cases commenced by both firms. Both firms deny any wrongdoing.
The Law Society accused the government on Thursday of attempting to undermine the rule of law by intimidating solicitors who pursue legitimate cases.
Its president, Robert Bourns, said: “The rule of law protects and holds every single one of us accountable, from the most powerful to the most vulnerable.
“Military personnel should have the ability to pursue claims for wrongdoing and should also be held to account if their conduct breaches international laws. Lawyers are also held to account if their actions violate their professional code of ethics or break the law. Each case must be based on merit, without prejudice.
“Lawyers must not be hindered or intimidated in carrying out their professional duties and acting in the best interests of their clients within the law. They should not be identified with their clients or clients’ cases. This principle is set out in the United Nations basic principles on the role of lawyers.
“The right to access to justice for all depends on lawyers being able to represent their clients’ cases within our framework of laws, no matter how the client or case may be perceived by the public, media or government. The merits of each case are decided by the relevant court, a function that is and must remain separate from government.”
The lawyers who drafted the ECHR – many of them British Conservatives – made clear that it applies during wartime
, the director of Liberty, Martha Spurrier, defended the application of human rights standards to the battlefield. “Soldiers at war,” she argued, “need a set of legal principles that they can operate within. But this is what the laws of war, including human rights, provide. The lawyers who drafted the – many of them British Conservatives – made clear that it applies during wartime, tailoring its requirements to the necessities of conflict.”
A spokesperson for Leigh Day said: “We understand the RMP are actively investigating a handful of our clients’ cases which were referred to the RMP by the MoD. We have no confirmation from the RMP that the case of Serdar Mohammed is amongst these cases.
“These investigations are separate from the civil cases brought by Leigh Day on behalf of Afghan citizens which are all brought against the MoD, not individual soldiers and concern allegations of unlawful detention, abuse whilst in detention and unlawful killings.”
The European court of human rights in Strasbourg on Thursday rejected a claim that the Dutch government should have prosecuted three Dutch soldiers who were members of the UN peacekeeping force in Srebrenica at the time of the 1995 massacre of civilians during the Bosnian war. Relatives of the victims claimed Dutch soldiers should not have ordered them to leave the safe UN compound.